Sucking on a rusty nail

In an attempt to head-off at least one source of disappointment at the pass, I would like to make clear that this post will not discuss cocktails – so please put your whisky and Drambuie away (unless they help you make it through the day or this blog).

In recent days, this blog has been concerned with the possibility that I may be one of the undead – an idea which I had largely discounted, but recent events suggest I may have been too quick (pun fully intended) to judge.

As I may have mentioned, I am part of a large scale medical experiment to see how frequently one can gorge on biscuits after a brief siesta without adverse consequences.  OK, I’ll admit the nap and biscuit feast are only side-effects of the real process – the giving of my blood (470ml – or a whole armful as I believe it is in Imperial units – per session).  In the old days, this could happen every 16 weeks, but in recent years has increased to every 12 weeks.  As part of the Interval Study, volunteers were randomly assigned to a group giving blood every 8, 10 or 12 weeks to see how well this works.  I have been part of M10, giving my blood every 10 weeks for the past 18 months or so.

On Thursday, I went up to Cambridge for my latest donation – but when the tiny sample from the pricking of my thumbs (OK, middle – or bird – finger)  was popped into a tube of copper sulphate it floated (rather than rapidly drowned as usual).  This indicates that I may be witch, but in these modern times one is not condemned quite so easily and so a larger sample was subjected to a spectrometer test.  This too confirmed that I was a witch – or at least that my haemoglobin was too low.  It was even too low for a woman (sorry ladies, but biology is no respecter of equality) and so my blood is off-limits – in fact, I have been placed on the bench for a full twelve months (a long time to go without a Bourbon or Club).  Still, in the olden days I would have been burnt at the stake, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

It is unknown why my haemoglobin is so low – we have established that it is not because I am a marathon runner (as if!) nor because I drink too much tea (the tannin in which can line the stomach and prevent absorption of iron) as my peak consumption of three cups per day is very low (by UK standards at least).  Whilst I am (mostly) vegetarian and so do not obtain much iron from the flesh of others, my balanced diet is rich in sources of iron from the plant kingdom (perhaps rather too rich on some cases) usually accompanied by something rich in vitamin C (and quite a lot of cheese).

I have to say that without the test, I would have had no idea that I was low on iron.  I have not been finding it any harder than usual to find the north – though I do seem to have been (even) more clumsy than usual of late, could this be haemoglobin related?

Still, despite my lack of symptoms (except this strange craving for human blood), this coming week I shall go and see my GP (having first obtained a GP) to discover what, if anything, I need do to restore my iron levels.  Well, it’s either that or avoiding sunlight and garlic and taking an interest in virginal necks.  I suppose that I do wear quite a lot of black and am permanently hungry, so I have some of the basics for life as a vampire.  Plus, I’m pretty sure that if anyone drove a stake (or even a steak) through my heart it would kill me.  However, I am generally of the view that immortality is even less desirable than the alternative, so let’s hope that a new career as a blood-sucking fiend is not in the offing.

Obliged to the Clydesdale Bank

Infrequent visitors to Scotland may be unaware that whilst they share a currency with the rest of the UK (and some at least wish to continue to do so, despite the issues this could create) they find our banknotes too drab and uninspiring to use.  As a result, they print their own more colourful currency for spending north of the border.

Three banks produce their own notes:

  • The Royal Bank of Scotland: nearly as boring as the English note-wise, could almost pass for real money.
  • The Bank of Scotland: more colourful and interesting, but not out of place in a board game for adults.
  • The Clydesdale Bank: like an explosion in a paint factory.  Clearly aimed at the kids.

I am being slightly unkind here, Clydesdale notes do also remind me of those used in Australia (though, unlike Aussie notes do not give the impression of being machine washable) – which may be because the bank is owned by the Australians.  However, you would be hard pushed to convince anyone in southern England that they were valid currency (even though they are) – you’d probably have more luck with Euros as they would be more familiar to the likely audience.

As a result, I usually try and dispose of any Scottish notes before I head south.  I did once manage to buy a bus ticket in Cambridge using a BoS note on the basis that Stagecoach (the operator of the bus) were a Scottish company and so really ought to accept payment in “local” currency: an approach which bamboozled the driver sufficiently to get me home.  However, I have never had the brass neck to try “passing” a Clydesdale note “down south” – and the south where I now reside is a long way down!

So, finding myself with Clydesdale notes aplenty last Wednesday evening I was on the lookout for a sensible way to spend them.  Due to mental enfeeblement, I stupidly bought concert programmes for the St John Passion using coins – good news for my balance (my list to port was significantly reduced) and left-hand trouser pocket, not so good for my colourful problem.  Luckily, as I was leaving I noticed that the Dunedin Consort (or their representatives) were selling “merch”.  No sign of the band/tour t-shirt – perhaps something for Alfonso Leal del Ojo to consider for future gigs – but they were flogging CDs, and so I acquired a Dunedin Consort performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

Yesterday, in my sole concession to any of religion, rabbits or chocolate, I listened to the performance.  It was quite stunning, like having the Dunedin Consort in my parlour – but without the terribly cramped and probably embarrassing conditions that would ensue were I to actually attempt to fit that many people and their instruments into my modest abode.  The CD is distributed (perhaps more: my knowledge of the workings of the music business is fairly rudimentary) by an outfit called Linn.  These seem to be quite splendid fellows and I may check out their other wares.  The CD comes in a rather nice, tasteful box, and one without the very sharp corners that have led to so many injuries over the years.  The sound quality of the CD was excellent and it comes with a little card that allows you to download a digital copy (free of charge) in a wide variety of formats.  As a result, I did have to resort to DuckDuckGo to discover what FLAC (nothing to do with Roberta or anti-aircraft fire, apparently) and ALAC (nothing to with ALAS) mean – and decide which I would prefer.  I suspect I may stick with plain old MP3 as I am far from convinced that I have any device that can play xLAC for any x – and as with any high quality, née audiophile, sound recording I doubt that my ears are sufficiently discerning to enjoy all that extra quality.  I sometimes wonder if some high-end audio is aimed at dogs or owls, or some other creature with much more acute hearing than your base model homo sapiens.

So, as well as snaps to Linn for their excellent musical offering, I find I must thank the Clydesdale Bank – without their garish taste in currency, I would probably have missed out on some wonderful music.  I realise this sort of opportunity was probably not uppermost in their minds when planning their notes, but if we only gave folks credit for the planned consequences of their actions I fear there would be far less gratitude in the world.  Let’s all raise a glass to serendipity!

Excessively Abelian?

Those who know either me or this blog will foresee that this post will be about commuting.  In an Abelian group – named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel – all the elements commute.  Whilst I have known the name of Abel for 30 years, it was only this week reading Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy that I realised what a short and tragic life he led.  Compared to Abel, one W A Mozart Esq had a good innings – though, when it comes to the foundation of group theory, Galois wins in the dying young stakes at only 20 (in a duel).  In its early days, group theory was a pretty dangerous subject – though I believe is a rather safer choice today.

Those of a less mathematical bent (what were you thinking?) will be pleased to know that the educational portion of this post is now over and I shall revert to the more humdrum definition of commuting.  If I adhered to the principles of the late Lord Reith, I would now go on to inform and entertain – but we all know that isn’t going to happen.

I am lucky enough to work from home most of the time, and so rarely have to commute.  However, I have served my time as a commuter (and may yet be sentenced again) and so know the general form.  A large chunk of your life is consumed, in addition to that spent working, travelling to and from your place of employ.  This is normally spent on a packed train or stuck in traffic (or, if really lucky, some of both) – adding to the time-taken and general stress and unpleasantness of the whole exercise.  On a recent work-related excursion to the capital during the rush hour I found myself wondering how so many people have wound up in this situation.  I can’t imagine anyone wants to spend so much of their life commuting (though I used to find it a good opportunity to read and catch up on podcasts), yet as a society we doom so many to this fate.

The costs to the nation must be astronomical.  To start with we have the cost in time and money to the commuters, likely to be accompanied by a reduction in their productivity at work and utility to society as a whole.  All those journeys add to injuries and deaths in rail and road traffic accidents and the air pollution produced leads to many premature deaths and additional calls on the resources of the NHS each year.  As a country, the UK needs to maintain more and wider roads, plus parking capacity at the ends of the journey.  The railways need additional capacity in rolling stock, track and signalling just to service the rush hours.  The increased wear-and-tear also increases the costs of maintaining all this infrastructure.  And this is a far from exhaustive list of the costs (a slightly tired list at best).

How did we let this happen?  In slightly iffy weather – ¼” of snow perhaps – we are advised to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary and the economy doesn’t seem to collapse (though retailers will use it as an excuse for any poor results for the next year or two).  Commuting must be taking a huge bite out of our GDP and can’t be doing much for people’s broader happiness.  I must assume that jobs tend to be concentrated where people either can’t afford to live or don’t want to live.  Sadly, one of the metrics which seems to be used to measure the success of a government seems to be how much more unaffordable they can make housing during their tenure. Despite an economic record that can most kindly be described as “patchy” (great if you’re a billionaire, less good if you’re disabled), the current chancellor has been very successful in creating a housing bubble.  I do fear that in the not very distant future, only Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and Hollywood stars will be able to afford to live in London (though will mostly leave their homes empty) adding still further commuting – or leading to the complete collapse of that city’s economy.  Perhaps a good metric would be the number of new jobs created, or better the sum product of jobs and salaries, outside of a major conurbation – or as a start, just outside Greater London.  Actually, the sum product of jobs and salaries either created (via their policies, or more commonly in their imagination) or destroyed by a government (directly in the case of the public sector, via their policies or in their opponent’s imagination otherwise) would be rather an interesting number.

I’m not entirely sure, in these days of electronic communication, why so many jobs have to be concentrated in a few conurbations.  In my experience of office life, people rarely speak to the person sitting next to them (preferring the passive-aggressiveness of email) let alone visit a colleague on another floor or worse trudge to a distant part of the city.  For a fraction of the cost of all the additional road and rail infrastructure we seem to need each year, I suspect every home, garden shed and cardboard box in the land could have state-of-the-art 3D video conferencing installed – though getting people to use it and actually talk to each other may be more of a challenge.  I’ll admit screens aren’t ideal, so people could actually go see their colleagues from time-to-time: once a fortnight, say (but not all of the same day, obviously).  Basically we could save travelling for when it is really needed or for the pursuit of fun and it might once again be a pleasure to journey by road or rail.

This would need some structural changes, I’ll admit – for a start, the whole basis of season tickets would need to be changed – but surely it has to be worth a go!   We will, however, have to overcome our societal obsession with house prices, but I can suggest tons (or tonnes for the metric among you) of more interesting topics for the middle-classes to discuss over dinner – why not start with a little group theory?

Back to the future

I worry that, after my last post, readers may suspect that as a middle-aged, middle-class white man I will attempt to live entirely in the past from this day forward.  If I were in a position of power, you might worry that I would try and make the rest of you join me there.  Let me reassure you that this is not the case (if nothing else I worry about the insanitary, ill-health and danger culture which typifies much of the past) and I will later illustrate with a couple of hundred examples (OK, I may spare you quite that many).  Equally, I try and avoid the common trope of assuming that the people of the past were stupid because they lacked the iPhone or self-parking cars – a position which might be more supportable if those making it had any idea how either device actually works.

This feeling that I might be mis-representing myself was probably deepened by lunch at Peter’s Yard a couple of days ago.  This establishment does not give you a numbered spoon or table to allow your food to find you (usually, I will admit, with the involvement of some human agency) but instead a Perspex plaque with a picture and associated Swedish word (plus its English translation).  On Tuesday, this word was “nostalgia” (or so it was translated) and I did wonder if the callow youth serving me was trying to make some sort of point.

My time in Edinburgh coincided with a portion of the Edinburgh Science Festival – so another tick in my I-Spy book of Edinburgh Festivals (I think I now have 4 out of more than a dozen).  As a result, I’ve seen robots and 3D printers in action – the latter seem very much at the early 1980s printer stage of development, slow and prone to jamming – the future of construction toys (inspired by peeling an orange) and used my smart phone as a microscope (the reverse is a much harder ask).  The National Museum Of Scotland – where I saw the aforementioned wonders – also had an exhibition marking 400 years of the logarithm.  Were I of a more larcenous nature than is in fact the case, I could happily have walked off with most of the exhibits.  I particularly want a set of Napier’s Bones and a Curta Type 1 Pocket Calculator.  People wax lyrical (using a singing version of Mr Sheen?) about the beauty of the iPhone, but the Curta is truly beautiful (albeit lacking some of the Apple product’s more esoteric features) and was made in Liechtenstein (rather than China).  Whilst out of production, they can still be acquired – but are a tad expensive and I suppose I don’t really need one.  I just noticed that I seem to have returned to the past in some sort of temporal mean reversion.  This denial is not going quite as well as I’d hoped!

I also went to a number of speaking events at the science festival (though, for me, more accurately describable as listening events).  I saw brief introductions to engineering and climate change – which were both good – and to bacteria which was incredible and potentially life changing.  Let’s just say that I have started washing my hands a LOT more often and am very keen to stay clear of any gram negative microbes – given that no pharmaceutical company is working on antibiotics to cure me should I allow myself to become so infected.  Perhaps the most inspiring event – and most fascinating – was entitled Making Data Work.  This straddled the space between the making movement, big data, creativity and intellectual property.  An example of just one question posed: Will the 3D printer be a lathe or a sewing machine?  This talk really showed what an interesting and challenging future there could be – and I find myself wondering how to become involved in it.

I will now admit that there is an ulterior motive to this whole post.  All the speaking events at the EdSciFest which I attended took place at Summerhall – an arts, making and science space which used to house the veterinary college.  As a result, it is referred to by all the locals I met as “the Dick Vet” – after its founder, William Dick and not as a result of any specialism taught there (as I’d briefly imagined – the ghost of Sid James is rarely far from my side).  Even better there is a bar on-site (from the days when it still housed students) called The Royal Dick.  Sadly, my packed schedule did not allow me to enjoy a pre-talk stiffener there, but I know where I’ll be drinking next time!  For any doubters, here is a picture of this august institution, its front bulging proudly towards the camera!



Travelling through time

Lest the title generates an undue level of excitement, I should stress that my work on temporal mechanics has yet to bear fruit.  I remain unlikely to encounter a vortisaur or to have an adverse effect on my grandparents’ courting. Nevertheless, by journeying to Scotland I have managed, in a very real sense, to travel into the past.  This is not to impugn the state of the proto-nation north of the Border, but merely to recognise the current climatic differences between the Athens of the North and the Hampton of the South.  Daffodils and magnolias, whose blooms are a distant memory on the south coast, are in very robust flower in Scotland.  I feel like I have been granted a very welcome second spring – even one accompanied by unexpected warm sunshine!

My second bite of the vernal cherry was a bonus, but enjoying the past was the primary driver for my visit to Edinburgh (and beyond).  It was the work of Johann Sebastian Bach that drew me north, as performed by the Dunedin Consort – which means that both the performance and the instruments were appropriate to the time of Herr Bach.  The performers were, fortunately, of a more youthful vintage – though I suspect some of the audience may have known JS personally – and at least some of the instruments were likely to have been more recent reproductions of the period originals (or were suspiciously shiny, if not). The first gig was the St Matthew Passion (the “Harris”) at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh – enjoyed from the front row of the circle, proof of how well my war against acrophobia is going.  Despite being a Godless heathen, I managed to do this on the highly appropriate date of Palm Sunday (yes, the pun was fully intended: need you ask?).  The music is divine (in both senses, I suspect) but I have to say that no-one emerges with much credit from St Matthew’s storytelling – including both the aspects of God involved (the Holy Ghost does manage to escape without a stain on its reputation – or could only be indicted for sins of omission).  For a story about forgiveness, there does seem to be an awful lot of blame bandied about.  Was the early church hoping to fund itself with the aid of ambulance-chasing lawyers?  My saviour was crucified on an unsafe cross, but with the help of I won 40,000 sesterces and promotion to the Equestrian class?  I think we can all agree that I made the right choice not to pursue my early theological promise (yes, he is going to mention his O level in Religious Studies again).

My second dose of Bach occurred yesterday, even further north in St John’s Kirk in Perth.  This was for the St John Passion – though the wrong St John, as the kirk is dedicated to St John the Baptist.  The good folk of Perth do rather seem to have lost their heads (heids?) when it comes to this particular saint, with two churches dedicated to him within less than 100 yards of each other.  (Yes, I do realise that last sentence could be considered to be in rather poor taste, but it’s been nearly 2000 years).  The Dunedin performance includes not only the passion itself, but also additional organ music and singing that would have been part of a period performance.  We even had a sermon just before half-time, courtesy of the Church of Scotland.  Whilst I could happily have missed this last (though the minister did have a lovely accent), the added music really made the evening something special – the aria Er es vollbracht and the final motet was especially stunning.  It is hard to imagine a better performance of the SJP and well worth the (roughly) 800 mile round-trip that I made to enjoy it!

So, even without a madman with a box – though frankly, who needs a Time Lord for that, I could easily supply both myself – I can thoroughly recommend a little time travel.

The curse has come upon me

I tend to think, when the black dog is safely curled up in his basket, that I am the luckiest chap alive – or at least one of them (I have no desire to become overly competitive with others on whom Fate has smiled).  The place and time of my birth mean that my physical suffering has been dramatically less than for the vast majority of the members of the family Homo who have trodden the earth (and, frankly, most of any such suffering that has occurred has been self-inflicted).  I am also fortunate that my rather rag-tag collection of (what I like to call) skills are sufficiently valued by “the man” that I am paid more money than I am able (or perhaps willing) to spend maintaining myself and my desires, while only working (a theoretical) three days a week (well, I was brought up in the 1970s).

I have the opportunity to express myself creatively, not least through this blog – and, sometimes, the words I cast into the avoid even seem to find a sympathetic ear.  Usually, the only fly of discord in the ointment of my existence is my continuing tendency to insomnia.  I sometimes wonder what I might achieve with the benefit of a few, contiguous nights of decent sleep.  Then again, perhaps under such conditions I might become even more insufferable than is already the case.

The last 24 hours might serve to illustrate my good fortune.  After some time fighting with work, a little ironing and some ring-based gymnastic training I treated myself to an episode of Psych on DVD.  This is well into series 5 (for me) and yet is still finding new ways to be extremely silly and funny.  In the evening I went to the Art House Café to see Andrew O’Neill gives his “lecture” on the history of heavy metal – which was very funny, quite loud and surprisingly informative.  I think I may have a rather greater fondness for the oeuvre than I had realised.  This morning, I left the flat to sunshine and bird song to start my journey up to Edinburgh by train.  Sadly, this did start with the dreaded rail-replacement bus service – but, oddly, whilst they are pretty rubbish with the trains, South West trains do run a very efficient and well-organised replacement bus service (I think this may be their métier).  As a result of this, and my over-compensation for their normal uselessness, I had quite a long wait in London before my train left Kings Cross – just enough time to stroll up to 10 Greek Street for a light(ish) lunch.

All very idyllic (albeit with a slightly non-standard definition of an idyll) you may think – and frankly rather dull – so now we come to the twist and move into darker territory.

As I prepared to go out yesterday evening, I selected a light-weight jacket from my wardrobe – but as I swept it around my shoulders I thought I glimpsed something odd and so took a closer look.  The back of the jacket looked as though its wearer had been the subject of a frenzied stabbing attack, focused on the right shoulder blade.  I have no recall of such an attack, nor have I found any indication of knife-wielding moths in my wardrobe (or similar damage to other garments).  Have I been horribly murdered and am now in some form of limbo?  (And why does the afterlife involve trying to manoeuvre under an unfeasibly low horizontal obstacle anyway?)  Or am I a ghost, but don’t yet know it?  Or perhaps in some sort of fugue-state bought on by a very messy divorce?

Despite these worries, I manage to get some sleep last night – placing my watch on my bed-side table as normal.  When I came to return the timepiece to its other home, my left wrist, this morning I discovered that its face had “crack’d from side to side”.  Luckily, my loom and associated weaving seem to remain undamaged and I have not spotted the bier of a puissant knight passing my window.  Nonetheless, I live in fear in case Alfred (Lord Tennyson) had the basic story aright but used his artistic licence with a few of the key details to make for a more “commercial” poem.  If my surprisingly buff and youthful corpse should wash ashore near some analogue of Camelot, you dear readers will no that my fears were, like a dishwasher tablet, far from baseless.

Nothing could have fallen onto my watch, nor had it fallen from its place of repose, so how did it crack?  Did the heavy metal-stylings of Mr O’Neill happen to hit some critical frequency?  Or is some unquiet spirit haunting my demesne?  Could it be that I am the unquiet spirit, doomed to walk the earth until I avenge my untimely, cutlery-themed demise?

Woo! (It is surprisingly hard to be spooky in print, so please imagine a sudden drop in temperature and me rattling some chains).

Small claims: caught

Before the days of regulation, advertisers could make truly incredible claims about their products.   Medicines were claimed to cure a huge range of ills, and given that many contained what are now Class A drugs, even if they didn’t effect a cure I suppose they might well have acted as a distraction.  Talking of Class A drugs, as a youth with an upset stomach, I was offered kaolin and morphine – which is basically clay and heroin (so akin to shooting up in a Cornish mine) – which now strikes me as rather odd (not to say sinister).

Still, in these more enlightened times advertisers have to be somewhat more truthful in their statements.  Though, thinking back to medicine and comparing the outrageous claims made by Messer Lemsip and Beecham about their palliatives and their actual effect on the cold (or ‘flu) ridden human body, I do wonder just how far we really have come…

However, today I shall focus on some very modest claims indeed made by current advertisers.  I have seen adverts for hair dye which claim it will cover “up to 100% of grey hair” and for a toothbrush that removes “up to 100% of plaque”.  I would like to point out to these folk that a bar of milk chocolate, a small pack of wood screws, the Companies Act 2006 and a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake could all make exactly the same claim as to their efficacy on one’s coiffeur or dentition.  Sadly “up to 100%” encompasses 0% – and so is saying nothing at all (though, in the words of at least one song, this is when one says it best).

In a slightly related item, I am a sometime consumer of protein powder – well, my body having been torn apart in the pursuit of gymnastic glory needs some raw material to rebuild itself (better… faster… stronger – and all for far less than $6,000,000) and it is mostly made of protein.  Being me, this is not just any old protein – nor, less you are hearing the music of Sailor (Glass of Champagne) in your head, does it come from M&S.  This protein requires no less than seven adjectives to describe it – none of them to big it up, mind, just to describe it.  I fear this may have worn them out, as when it comes to “suggested use” they merely say “one or more scoops” (so, at least I know never to use less than one – though I’m not sure what terribly consequence might ensue if I did) and defines a range of liquids to use as “mixers” but ends the list with “or your favourite beverage”.  I have yet to try 437 scoops with a bottle of gin – but have been sorely tempted!  (For the avoidance of doubt, gin is not my favourite beverage – this is merely an imposture for supposedly comic effect).  The “suggested use” is not a claim per se, but very much a statement which leaves rather too much open to be of much utility – I suppose they have come down against mixing my scoop(s) with a gas, solid or plasma and have limited my choice of liquids to one which could be considered a beverage but frankly they could have saved the ink with no loss to the user.

I think it is time to campaign under the slogan, “if you have nothing to say, then say nothing”.  Think of the savings!  A risky choice for me, obviously, given the whole blog thing – but as you will have realised by now, I am the exception to every rule.